A U-boat Crewman’s Life Aboard U-505
Author: Hans Goebeler with John Vanzo
"What the hell do Shakespeare and Robert Louis Stevenson have to say about U-boats?"
Maschinengefreiter (Machinist Second Class) Hans Goebeler often heard this and other teasing remarks from his crewmates aboard the U-505 because he read English literature to improve his mastery of the language. You could venture a guess that Shakespeare and Robert Louis Stevenson had nothing to say about U-boats but to history’s benefit Goebeler certainly does. Part memoir and part operational log, Goebeler’s Steel Boat, Iron Hearts: A U-boat Crewman’s Life Aboard U-505 conveys the glories, struggles, and capture of the only museum-exhibited Type IXC U-boat in existence today.
By February 1942 the Battle of the Atlantic was turning against the U-boats. Goebeler was fresh out of the enlisted sailor’s U-bootschule. He was assigned to U-505, which had just arrived in Lorient, France from the yards in Germany and was being readied for service. It was the beginning of a strong bond between the patriotic young German and his submarine, a remarkable life-long association that would see him as the U-505’s crewmember, failed executioner, and ultimately her defender.
Written with the capable assistance of writer John Vanzo, this book is notable because it is provides a non-officer’s perspective. Goebeler was assigned to the diving manifold station, which made him a fixture in the control room. On a U-boat, anyone not stationed in the control room or bridge could only find out about combat events second hand. Being stationed within sight and sound of the U-boat’s nerve center allowed Goebeler to witness the captain’s decisions and actions. Goebeler dutifully kept diaries, notes, mementos, and reminders of his service aboard U-505, which, along with subsequent research and a copy of the ship's log, served as the core for this book.
The bulk of Steel Boat can be described in four sections; operational patrols, life on shore in occupied France, failed patrols due to sabotage, and eyewitness accounts of U-505’s three commanding officers.
Kapitenluetnant Axel Lowe, U-505’s first captain, is portrayed as a capable commander with better-than-average interpersonal skills. He gets the most out of his crew by common courtesies and respect. It’s during his command that U-505 had a string of successes in the Caribbean and off the west coast of Africa. He was undone when he reluctantly orders the gun crew to a sink a schooner that turns out to be the property of a Columbian diplomat.
Lowe is replaced by the spectacularly unstable Kptlt. Peter Zschech, a younger, less experienced commander; a vain man beset by uncertainty and repressed fear. Zschech’s fitful temper and harsh treatment of his men set a bad example for his officers, who mirrored his behavior, making life aboard U-505 intolerable. It didn't let up between patrols, either; Zschech orders his men to undergo infantry training (though in fairness to Zschech, he knew that the crew needed to be kept busy or they would have gotten in more scrapes shoreside; enlisted men invariably complain about such activities.)
It was during a patrol off the coast of Trinidad that U-505 and her commander faced their greatest test of will. On the afternoon of November 11, 1942 U-505 was surprised while on the surface by a British Hudson bomber. Piloted by Sgt. Ronald Sillcock, the U-boat suffered a direct hit by one or more bombs. The explosion was so great it brought down the bomber, killing its crew. The damage to U-505 was massive. The anti-aircraft gun was ripped from the deck, the pressure hull was breached, water was flooding the engine room—the boat was wrecked. Zschech order the crew to abandon ship but Chief Petty Officer Otto Fricke would have none of it:
The crew of the U-505 reined in her officers and prevailed over the crippling damage. After weeks of repair duty, U-505 managed to hobble back to port, garnering the distinction as "the most heavily damaged sub to get back to port".
At sea Goebeler is a devoted sailor but in port he is an unabashed hedonist, drinking, fighting, and carousing the French brothels. His candid accounts of wartime liberty include a brush with enemy agents of espionage.
By July, 1943 U-505’s biggest enemy had become the Lorient shipyard workers, the "ethically-German residents of Poland and other Eastern European countries" conscripted to provide maintenance and repairs to Hitler’s U-Bootwaffe in occupied France. Goebeler describes numerous hair-raising incidents where test dives were accompanied by "gurgling" and "hissing" sounds that petrified every man aboard. Sabotaged electrical and radar detecting gear, a drilled hole in the diesel bunker, and faulty welds forced the early termination of a series of patrols. Goebeler points out U-505 was not alone—other boats reported incidents of intentional sabotage. One boat discovered a dead dog in the drinking water tank. U-boats fought battles on several fronts.
During his tenure, Kptlt. Zschech sees his fellow captains falling victim to the ever-increasing Allied ASW might and it takes a toll on his nerve. Ultimately, he snaps during a depth charge attack on October 24, 1943 and puts a pistol to his head, the only U-boat captain to commit suicide in the war. His despair and demise factors as one of the chief elements that led historians and writers to regard U-505’s morale as tainted.
It is that historical interpretation that compelled Goebeler to undertake this book. Goebeler insists the U-505’s crew were not overcome by low morale. They survived Zschech and his sycophants, they overcame the Sillcock bombing, they survived numerous depth charge attacks by an overwhelming adversary, and they survived numerous cases of sabotage. As Goebeler puts it:
The third and final commander of U-505 was Oblt. Harald Lange, formerly a merchant mariner. Older and more experienced at managing subordinates than his predecessor, Lange restored the crew’s confidence in its officers. But by March 1944, when U-505 departed Brest for a patrol in the waters of the west coast of Africa, no amount of officer leadership or crew performance would lessen the odds against them. Great Britain and her ally the United States had improved combined sea and air "hunter-killer" tactics. U-boats were being sunk at a rate of nearly eighteen a month. One special Allied task force had set out to capture a U-boat. Fate placed U-505 in the path of the USS Guadalcanal task group 22.3 (commanded by Captain Daniel Gallery). After evading the enemy once, their paths crossed again on the morning of June 4, 1944. After a brutal session of depth charges, U-505 sustained more damage than she could bear and remain submerged.
With numerous aircraft and escorts waiting on the surface for them there was never any question that the German crew would have to abandon their sub. According to Goebeler the Chief Engineering Officer neglected to set the scuttling charges. Goebeler remained on board long enough to open the main pump sea strainer in the control room. He tossed the cover aside, a move that would cause him a great deal of self-examination for years to come. He claims that had he dropped the cover into the control room bilge the Allies would have failed to take the boat. Instead, a recovery special team from the USS Pillsbury boarded U-505 and managed to stop the flooding. The U-505 now sported the flag of the USA.
Goebeler’s account swiftly draws to a close after the capture. He returned to Germany after the war but his service to U-505 was not finished. Upon retirement in 1954 Goebeler and his wife moved to Chicago where U-505 was located as an exhibit in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. After many years as a volunteer and reunion organizer Goebeler died in 1999, before this edition was published. But like his boat, U-505, his story lives on. Accurate, highly detailed, and well-written, Steel Boat, Iron Hearts is worthy to fill that space on your bookshelf between Raiders of the Deep and Iron Coffins.
Interview with John Vanzo, co-author of Hans Goebeler’s Steel Boat, Iron Hearts: A U-boat Crewman’s Life Aboard U-505. Copies signed and personalized by John Vanzo are available at no extra charge. E-mail: email@example.com
© 2005 SUBSIM Review